For decades, a seemingly unattainable dream of many in the Chester Upland School District was for the district to become a "sponsor" of Delaware County Community College, thereby cutting tuition in half for residents taking courses there.
The problem: The district, among the poorest in the state, did not have money for the large one-time buy-in and for yearly payments.
But on Monday, the dream became a reality, when Chester City officials handed over a $3.9 million check to the college - thanks to a clause in the state table-games law that went into effect in July.
It requires that Harrah's Chester Casino & Racetrack in Chester turn over a slice of its table-games revenue to fund the community college sponsorship.
Starting in January, students from Chester City, Chester Township, and Upland Borough taking a full course load of 12 credits a semester will pay $1,164 in tuition. If the district were not a sponsor, they would pay $2,328.
"It's going to pay a huge dividend, year after year, because there are so many people who couldn't afford college" and now can, Chester Mayor Wendell N. Butler Jr. said at Monday's ceremony at the college's Marple Township campus. "This is a grand day for us."
Delaware County Community College enrolls about 28,000 students, including 7,000 who take courses in neighboring Chester County. Of the students at the Marple campus, about 670 live in the Chester Upland district. About 350 are taking courses that could lead to a degree.
The college's president, Jerry Parker, said that usually about 15 percent of graduating seniors in a sponsoring district enroll at the college. Only about 5 percent of Chester Upland graduates go there, he said, a figure he hopes will rise.
"There's definitely room for improvement, and affordability is certainly a big factor for our students," he said.
John Linder, a Chester City Council member and a sociology professor at the college, said Monday that "one of the biggest problems with students dropping out is economics. It takes too long to get a degree one or two courses at a time." Now, with the price cut in half, he said, "I've already had students talking about taking more courses."
That's certainly the case with Knidia Kea, 30, a Chester resident who started at the college in August. She is taking psychology courses but aiming at a law degree. "This is a dream come true for me," she said. "My tuition bill was pretty heavy. Now I can take more courses and earn credits more quickly."
Delaware County is one of four in Pennsylvania where the community share of its community college's funding is paid by participating school districts, not by the county as a whole. Sponsoring districts make an annual contribution to the community college, and students who live in those districts pay less in tuition.
In Delaware County, three districts - Marple Newtown, Penn-Delco, and Chichester - and some townships in two others - Wallingford-Swarthmore and Garnet Valley - do not sponsor the community college. Twelve districts, now including Chester Upland, are sponsors, paying a total of $8 million this year.
The annual payments are made according to the market value of their real estate. Radnor pays almost $1.4 million, while tiny Swarthmore and Rutledge Boroughs combined pay about $170,000.
Chester will pay $248,000. The $3.9 million one-time buy-in payment Monday was the district's share of the value of the Marple campus.
Under the table-gaming law, 1 percent of Harrah's table-games revenue goes to pay Chester Upland's community college costs. Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware), who represents the Chester Upland municipalities and helped shepherd the provision, attended Monday's ceremony.
Chester City took out a 15-year bond to pay for the buy-in and annual contributions. Payments on the bond will average about $570,000 a year, said Thomas Moore, Butler's chief of staff, funded by Harrah's contribution of about $650,000 a year.
An additional $650,000 from table games will go into Chester's general fund. The casino will also pay the city $11.4 million this year from slot machine revenues.
Chester has an annual budget of about $42 million. It was declared financially distressed by the state in the early 1990s and still retains that status, despite the infusion of money from the casino.